The UK Government must end its shameful complicity in the destruction of Yemen
By Andrew Smith
Over the past 18 months, the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen has led to over 10,000 deaths and the destruction of billions of pounds’ worth of vital infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and homes. How can the UK government claim it cares about the suffering of Yemenis when it continues to supply the weapons inflicting the damage? Asks Andrew Smith.
The conduct of the bombing has been condemned by much of the international community, with the United Nations and the European Parliament having repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of violating international humanitarian law.
However, the regime has been able to rely on the unbending support of some powerful allies. None of its backers have been as enthusiastic as those in Whitehall, where the government has pulled out all-stops to ensure it can continue arming and supporting its most toxic ally.
Over recent months, that support has come under a lot more strain, with public and parliamentary opposition increasing and mobilising as the full scale and consequences of the Saudi-led bombing have become clearer.
The government’s position has particularly come under fire following revelations that it had misled parliament over its role in supporting the campaign.
In June, in the dying hours of the last parliamentary session, the Foreign Office published a series of written corrections that revealed a number of its key claims about the conduct of the war to have been inaccurate.
For instance, where the parliamentary record had quoted ministers in saying that “The MOD assessment is that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians” this was corrected to the far more equivocal “The MOD has not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians.”
It was a subtle but very important distinction. Unfortunately, it was typical of a number of changes to the text that seemed to shift the burden of responsibility: Suggesting, in effect, that the UK’s arms foreign policy was being directed by nothing more than commercial interests and Saudi-assurances.
Since his appointment, the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has done nothing to suggest any of this will change. On the contrary, he used the first day of the current parliamentary session to ‘double-down’ on the uncritically supportive stance of his predecessors.
In a written statement, he argued that the UK doesn’t need to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia, or to call for an international investigation into war crimes, effectively arguing that the Saudi government is best placed to investigate itself. Johnson went on to stress the tired, familiar and manifestly untrue line that the UK Government “takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world.”
Calls for the UK government to suspend its arms sales have come from across the political spectrum, including the European Parliament and the House of Commons’ International Development Committee. The exports have also been condemned by the front bench of the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as MPs from the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP.
At present, the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls is considering the issue, with a number of analysts expecting it to call for the UK to suspend arms exports to Riyadh. This prospect was backed-up when a copy of the committee’s draft report into the matter was leaked to the BBC’s Newsnight programme, and showed that the draft report called for a halt on arms exports. However, two pro-Saudi MPs, Crispin Blunt and John Spellar, are reportedly trying to water-down its conclusions. While the word of the Parliamentary committee is far from binding, its conclusions – if it sticks by them – would pile even more political pressure on Johnson and his colleagues. Unsurprisingly, there have been attempts to delay the report’s publication, with Blunt reportedly walking out of proceedings and demanding that private investigators are called in to hunt those responsable for the leaks.
There is no doubt that the Saudi government is taking the report very seriously. It’s no coincidence that, on the very day that the report was set to be finalised, Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, was dispatched to London to “inform” MPs on the conduct of the bombing. This was reminiscent of the efforts undertaken by Saudi representatives to lobby MEPs in the build-up to the European Parliament’s vote to oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, this issue isn’t coming under scrutiny in parliament alone, but is expected to be investigated in court, too. Most notably, the legality of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are subject to a judicial review, following a successful application by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) in June. The claim calls on the government to suspend all extant arms export licences – and to stop issuing further ones – to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, while it holds a full review into whether the exports are compatible with UK and EU legislation. An unprecedented three-day hearing will take place in front of two judges no later than 01 February 2017.
In the meantime, the arms sales will go on and the humanitarian crisis will get worse. Ministers, such as Johnson, will continue to parrot the same usual lines. They will use their empty rhetoric to try to assure us that every precaution is being taken and that they are doing everything they can to minimise the carnage. Their platitudes may curry favour with arms companies and the Saudi Royal Family, but they will do nothing to help those on the ground in Yemen.
In politics you have to take sides. You can’t support the people being bombed in their homes at the same time as you are supplying the bombs. It’s impossible for the government to do the right thing for the people suffering in Yemen while it is also supporting those that are inflicting the damage. The UK government has been complicit in the destruction of Yemen, now it must do everything it can to end it.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @CAATukceasefiremagazine.co.uk